Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Significance of Synonyms

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Not “fat” but “round”

Usually, when I get my hair cut here in Belgium, I just make my next appointment while I am at the salon. Face to face conversations that involve dates and times in French are just so much easier for me. However, I neglected to do this a few weeks ago, so I had to call my hairdresser to make an appointment. When the phone rang, one of the other hairdressers answered it. I explained that I wanted my hair to be washed, cut and dried. I know the name of my hairdresser, but when she asked me who usually washes and dries my hair, I didn’t know. I said the person was young and had short dark hair. Unfortunately, that describes several of the assistants at the salon, so the woman pressed for more information.

I panicked. The only truly defining feature that I could think of at the moment was that the girl who washes and dries my hair is a bit plump, while all the other girls are stick-thin. If I had been speaking in English, I would have said that the girl was a little bit “curvy.” I could have also said “heavy” or “curvaceous” or “big-boned” or “full-figured” or “voluptuous” or “heavy-set” or … well, you get the idea. My French vocabulary, though, is simply not that extensive. I wound up apologizing and saying that she was “fat.”

I felt terrible about describing someone in this way, but it did the trick. The person on the phone understood immediately whom I meant and I successfully made the appointment. My colleague, a fluent French speaker, happened to overhear my side of the conversation. When I got off the phone, she told me that a Belgian would have said “round” or “strong”, not “fat.” I made a point of learning the assistant’s name, so I will never have to describe her again, but now I know how to phrase it if I ever do.

Teaching Synonyms

When students are beginners, it is enough just to learn words like “big” and “happy.” However, as students become more adept language users, they need to have access to a wider variety of words. In fact, in a recent posting, The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 3: The Constraints of a Limited Vocabulary, I summarized Jack Richard’s (2008) article, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, in which he points out that in order for students to bridge the gap between Intermediate and Advanced level learning, they need to have a robust vocabulary and be able to distinguish between synonyms such as “small” and “minute,” for instance.

Teachers need to provide upper-level students with exposure to a variety of synonyms. Students should write the new words in their vocabulary logs and carefully note any connotations and collocations. For instance, there is a difference between saying something is “tricky” and saying it is “grueling,” though both words essentially mean “difficult.” Students need to be aware that “tricky” can be used for something unpredictable or requiring special care, while “grueling” would refer to something that is exhausting. They also need to note that “tricky” often collocates with words like “part” and “bit,” while “grueling” would be more likely to be used with words like “journey,” “process” or “schedule.” We can also say something is “a little bit tricky” but not “a little bit grueling.” Finally, “tricky” has a softer feeling than “grueling.” For example, I would rather a student described my lesson as “tricky” than “grueling.” According to Folse (2004), in order for a student to really “know” a word, he or she needs to be familiar with the ways in which it can be used, too.

Folse (2013) also points out that the key to remembering vocabulary lies in “the number of times your brain touches the word.” Luckily, there are several interactive activities teachers can use to help students review synonyms. I like the Walking Card Match.  I give each student a card containing either a simple word or its synonym and have the class wander around trying to find their match. One they locate their partner, they have to determine how the words are different and share their answer with the class. This activity is a twist on the Card Match, in which pairs of students work are given a whole set of synonyms and they match all of them while sitting together at their desks. Once students have successfully matched all the cards, the class can review how the synonyms are different.

In his presentation at TESOL in 2013, Folse demonstrated another fun review game. First, the teacher puts students into pairs. One person can see the board and the other can’t. The teacher then writes 12 words on the board and the student who can see the board describes them, giving as many synonyms as possible. The student who can’t see the board guesses the words and writes them on a piece of paper. After a few minutes, all the students look at the board and the teacher can lead a discussion about the synonyms the describers used. Then, the students switch roles and new words are put up.

Having a formidable word bank not only allows our students to communicate with precision and variety, it also may help students to avoid embarrassing, potentially rude conversations like mine. The more synonyms we can help our students learn, the better!


Folse, K. (2013) Practical Activities for Learning Vocabulary, paper presented at TESOL Conference, Dallas, Texas, USA.

Folse, K. (2004) Vocabulary Myths, University of Michigan Press.

Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.

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